Gospel of John (17) — A Kingdom Not of This World

            This morning, we continue in our study of the gospel of John.  In just a little bit, we’ll be in John chapter 18.

            But, first, I’m sure you’ve seen statistics showing that fewer and fewer people regard themselves as connected with a religion.  This piece of the pie, “no religion”, is growing every year.  And so, you’ve probably heard of “the Nones”.  That’s the name that researchers have given to this group of people who claim to have “no religious affiliation”  When they are presented with a list of different religions, they simply check the box, “none of the above”.

            But, this morning, I want us to consider a related but different group of people.   It’s a group that researchers call “the Dones”.  They’re not “un-churched”; they’re “done-churched”.

            These are the people who used to be actively involved with a church, but now they’re just done with it.  Many of them were committed to a church for many years, but now, they no longer attend.  Many of them still regard themselves as spiritual; they simply no longer identify with any religious group. 

            Let me give you the numbers.  There are about 65 million Americans who used to regularly attend church, but they no longer do so.  A little more than 2/3 of them say they still believe in God.  In fact, one out of five say that they still pray every day. And most of these Dones say they believe that churches can and do provide important benefits to society — like helping the poor.

            So, what that tells me is that most of these people leaving the church aren’t godless heathens.  They aren’t just turning their backs on God.  A lot of them are still praying, which indicates they want a relationship with God.  And most of them still believe the church is important.

            So, why are they leaving?  Why do people — especially people under the age of thirty — seem to be on a mass exodus out of the church?

            There’s a research group called Pew Research that wanted to know the answer to that question.  So, they did a survey.  And they asked all these people who mostly still believe in God, who pray, and who can envision the church doing great things in the world:  Why is it that you are done with church?

            Let me share with you three of the most common answers they got.  First of all, there were some who said they’re done with church because their churches are too hung up on money and power.  And I don’t think they were upset over being asked to give money for the work of the church.  I suspect if you asked them, their problem would be that there seems to an attitude in many churches that money is what matters the most.  Or that their churches were always boasting about having the most impressive buildings or innovative ministries.

            A second reason they gave for being done with church is that they believe their churches were too focused on rules.  Now, we all understand that God has expectations for people who make the decision to follow Jesus Christ.  There are some things that we have to do and there are some things that we shouldn’t do — and Jesus was pretty clearly about what those things are.  I don’t think that’s really the problem for these Dones.  I think if you were to ask them, they would say their problem is that a lot of the rules their churches want to enforce are their rules — not God’s rules.  Rules that often end up excluding people instead of welcoming them.  Rules that can make following Christ harder, not easier.

            And a third reason theygave for being done with church was that their churches were too involved with politics.  And I understand that.  I see a lot of people who are Christians that are constantly posting political stuff on Facebook or other social media.  And a lot of it is just plain snarky.  A lot of it uses language that is disrespectful.  A lot of it is an over-simplified commentary on really complex problems.  And a lot of it just simply isn’t true.  And what this communicates to people who might have other viewpoints — both Christians and people outside the church — is that they probably wouldn’t be welcome in our churches.

            All of this ought to be a wake-up call for churches.  Keep in mind, these Dones weren’t fringe people in their churches.  Many of them used to be incredibly active, involved, engaged in their churches.  Most of them still believe in God.  They’re still praying. Many of them are still hopeful that the church can turn it around.  But for now, they’re done.

            And they’ve told us, “These are the three main reasons why.”  But I firmly believe we can do something about those three reasons.  And I think the solution is found in our text this morning, when Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.

            Let’s take a look at our video.  If you’d like to follow along in your Bible, we’ll begin in John 18, verse 28.

            VIDEO

            We all recognize that Jesus is our king.  But, in this passage, Jesus doesn’t look very king-like at all.  He stands before Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor, a representative of the Roman emperor, accused of being a criminal, a rebel against the Roman empire.  And yet, right in the middle of this passage, there is this strange discussion about the nature of Jesus’ kingship.  

            In verse 36, Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)

            “My kingdom is not of this world.” Which almost makes it sound like it’s something that’s not quite real.  Something far away and distant.  Something out of this world.  But the kingdom Jesus talked about is very real.  And it’s here on earth.  You can know it, you can see it, you can live in it.  God’s kingdom is in the world, but not of the world.

            Various translations translate that phrase a bit differently.  For example, the Contemporary English Version translates it, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.”  The Good News Translation has, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.”  But maybe the best translation is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message:  “My kingdom … doesn’t consist of what you see around you…. I’m not…the world’s kind of king.”

            In other words, “My kingdom isn’t like anything you see in the kingdoms in your world.” The kingdoms and nations and institutions of our world are focused on money and power. They’re bureaucracies with a bunch of rules to control people. And they’re divided by politics.

            But Jesus still says—to the church and to the world—My kingdom isn’t like these kingdoms you see all around you!

            So, you know what I think?  I think most of the Dones are done with churches that look like, act like, and function like the rest of the world.  And honestly, I believe that if Jesus was physically present with us right now, he would say that the things that are frustrating the Dones also frustrate him.

            So, for the rest of our time this morning, I’d like for us to take a look at what the scriptures say about this kingdom that Jesus told Pilate about.   And once we understand the nature of this kingdom — a kingdom that we’re a part of — we’ll be in a position to do something about the three major issues that are driving people away from the church.  But more importantly, we’ll have a much better understanding of what God expects the church to be doing in and for the world.

            The four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — use the phrase kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven 86 times.  Those two phrases refer to the exact same thing, and sometimes they’re even interchangeably.  The kingdom of God was at the very center of everything Jesus said and did.

            Matthew 4:17 tells us that “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  That was his message, summed up in one sentence.

            Now, the simplest way to understand the idea of “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is that it encompasses the rule (or reign) of God.  Or God’s dominion over all things.

            Now, I understand that those of us who are Americans aren’t really comfortable with ideas like dominion and kingdoms and kings ruling over us. We fought a long, bloody war to get out from under all that.  But remember — the kingdom of heaven isn’t like the kingdoms of this world.

            Now, I could give you a whole biblical theology of the kingdom of God this morning.  But that would take the rest of the day  Instead, I just want to try to give you an image that will help you to understand the purpose of this kingdom.

            I’m guessing — or at least hoping—that most of you are familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.  Especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Some of you may have read the books or seen the movies.

            So, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there are some children who find an enchanted wardrobe.  And that wardrobe leads them into the land of Narnia.  Narnia is a magical place full of talking animals, living trees, and creatures you would normally only find in fairy tales.  But it’s also under a curse.  A wicked witch has cast a spell over the whole land, so that it’s always winter in Narnia.

            Now, what happens is that the rightful King of Narnia — the majestic lion Aslan — comes to liberate his kingdom from the witch’s curse.  And when Aslan comes into Narnia, the snow begins to melt and the frozen rivers start to thaw.  Everywhere Aslan’s paws touch, flowers start to bloom and springtime is unleashed.

            The witch had turned hundreds of creatures to stone during her reign of terror over Narnia. But Aslan brought them all back to life with his healing breath.  And then they all fought a great battle to liberate Narnia from the witch forever.  Aslan himself totally destroyed her.

            So, now that you have that image fixed in your mind — when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, it may help you to think about when Aslan came to set Narnia free.  He reestablished Narnia as a kingdom of justice and mercy and freedom and joy.

            And that describes the kingdom of God as well.  Through the kingdom of heaven, God is working to reclaim, redeem, restore, and renew his world.  Just like Aslan did for Narnia.  And of course, it was through Jesus that God really unleashed his kingdom on earth.

            As I made reference a few minutes ago, when Jesus first began his ministry, we’re told that Jesus went around telling the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17).  Or, as the Common English Bible puts it, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

            Jesus wanted everyone to understand that the kingdom of God changes everything, and we need to be ready for those changes.  Just like the talking creatures and living trees of Narnia hoped for Aslan’s return, and rejoiced when they heard he was on the move.

            Because Jesus did more than just announce God’s kingdom.  He showed people what God’s kingdom looks like.  Matthew 4:23 says that as Jesus traveled around, he not only announced the good news of the kingdom; he also healed every disease and sickness among the people.  And again, that’s just like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Aslan healed everyone the witch had turned to stone.  Where God reigns, people are set free from suffering.  God restores their lives.

            Are you beginning to see what the kingdom of heaven is?  It’s God coming as a victorious king.  It’s God reclaiming his territory.  It’s God fighting for us.  It’s God destroying every tyrant who oppresses his creation.

            Revelation 21 shows us what it will look like when God’s kingdom is fully established.  This is one of my favorite passages in all the Bible.  Because this is my hope, your hope, the world’s great hope.  John says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” (Revelation 21:1).  And here’s what this new world will look like:

            “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3).  The picture here is of God, the victorious king, surrounded by his faithful subjects.

            And then it says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

            Because God didn’t create this world and its creatures for death, and suffering, and grief.  Sin caused all that.  Satan caused all that.  But all of that will be no more when God’s kingdom has fully come.  And then it says in verse 5, “And he who was seated on the throne” — that’s God, our victorious King — he said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:4)

            That’s what we have to look forward to when God’s kingdom is fully come.  God on his throne, reigning over us in love and tenderness.  Defeating every enemy that has harmed his creation.  Turning our sorrows into joy and our mourning into laughter.

            But listen to those last words again: “I am making all things new.”  That’s not future tense.  God didn’t say, “I’m going to make all things new.”  He said, “I am making all things new.”  That’s not only a present tense.  It’s an ongoing present tense.  God’s kingdom isn’t something that just comes all at once.  It’s a process.  It’s something God is making.  It’s something God is building.  It’s something God is doing in our world.

            And the good news, the really good news, is that even right now you can live in God’s kingdom.  You can participate in God’s kingdom.  You can work for God’s kingdom.  You can see and feel and experience God’s kingdom.  Because the kingdom of heaven isn’t justour hope for the future.

            And the reason I know that is because Jesus said so.  When Jesus was here on this earth, he told the people, “God’s kingdom is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:21).  Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “God’s kingdom is already among you.”  And the reason that God’s kingdom was among them was because Jesus and his disciples were among the people.  Healing their diseases.  Wiping away tears.  Feeding the hungry.  Loving on the lonely people.  Standing up for the ones who were being bullied.  Remembering the ones who’d been forgotten.  Going back for the people who’d been left behind.

            That’s what God’s kingdom looks like.  All of that.  And I bet, before Jesus came along, there were a lot of those sick, grieving, hungry, lonely, harassed, forgotten, left-behind people who were donewith religion.  I think a lot of them hadn’t found God in the places they were “supposed” to find him – in the synagogues and with the religious leaders of their day.  And many of them were just done with religion.  But they saw something different in Jesus and the people who were following him.  They saw God at work.

            And that makes me think about the Dones of our society. The ones we talked about at the beginning of the lesson. The ones all around us who have quit looking for God in all of those places that they were “supposed” to find him.

            They’re Done because their churches were too focused on money and power.  On wealth and position and prestige in the world.

            And, church, we can dosomething about that.  It begins with remembering Jesus’ words at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  When he welcomed people into his Father’s kingdom.  He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3).  And he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)

            And in between, Jesus blessed the people who were broken-down, defeated, hungry for a better life, people who showed mercy, whose only hope was God, those who were trying to make this world a more peaceful place.

            Those aren’t the people with the money and the power.  But they’re the ones Jesus welcomes into the kingdom of heaven.  Because the kingdom of heaven isn’t like the kingdoms of earth.

            The Dones said their churches were obsessed with rules. Rules that put unnecessary burdens and restrictions on people. You know, Jesus had something to say about that, too. He said this about the religious leaders of his day, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4)

            But remember what Jesus said about himself, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:30)

            The kingdoms of this world are full of bureaucracies that put restrictions on people. That place heavy burdens on people’s lives.  That restrict people and exclude people.  It’s a control thing.  But in God’s kingdom, we’re called to love and to serve — not to be in charge. We need to be imagining ways we can unburden people and make their lives a little less stressful.  Like Jesus did.

            Finally, the Dones say they are absolutely done with churches that are too involved in partisan politics. That’s the way the kingdoms of this world operate.  But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us to: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33).  That trumps any other allegiance.  Our first, final, and foremost priority should always be God’s kingdom, and the work God has sent us into the world to do.

            And I think if Jesus was standing with us right here right now, I believe he would tell us that we need to be done with the things the Dones are done with. And we need get to work building and expanding the kingdom of heaven, right here, right now.

            In the process of preparing for this lesson, I went looking for a verse and I discovered something.  I went looking for a verse that says, “We are in the world, but not of the world.”  I was pretty certain that it was in there, somewhere, but I discovered that there is no verse that says that.  We get that idea from what Jesus said in John 17.  In that chapter, he was praying to his Father, and he said of his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14-16). 

            And from that, we have come up with this phrase that Christians are “in the world, but not of the world.”  David Mathis has written a very interesting article where he makes the case that that phrase leaves the wrong impression.  It makes it sound like, “We’re stuck in this world, but our mission is not be of the world, so we need to move to be moving further and further away from the world.”

            But when you look at verse 18, you get a different picture.  Jesus prayed, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18).  Mathis suggests that instead of saying, “we’re in the world, but not of the world”, instead, we should be saying, “we are not of the world, but we are sent into the world”, so that the emphasize falls on us being sent, with a mission, into the world — not being mainly on a mission to disassociate from this world.

            As Jesus said to Pilate, God’s kingdom is not of this world. But, as part of that kingdom, we have been sent into this world on a mission.

            So, here’s a challenge that I’d like to lay out for us this week.  In Matthew 6, there’s a prayer that Jesus taught us.  Most folks call it the Lord’s Prayer. The one that begins: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. 

            I’d like for each of us to pray that prayer at least once every day this week. And especially focus on what Jesus said in verse 10, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

            You see, one day, the kingdom of heaven is going to come in its fullness, and God’s will will be the only will that is done.  That’s what we talked about earlier:  The new heavens and new earth, when God defeats death and suffering and wipes away all the tears forever.

            But when we pray this prayer, what we’re actually praying is that we would be orienting our thoughts and our hearts and our lives and our actions toward that wonderful future that God has already shown us.

            That means that right now we’re wiping away people’s tears.  And if we can’t, we’re at least weeping with those who weep.  We’re healing people — I especially mean that for the medical professionals among us.  You’re doing kingdom work.  But if we can’t do that, we can at least not let people suffer alone.  It means we’re feeding the hungry. And there’s all different kinds of hunger.  It means we’re caring for the needy — and there’s all different kinds of needs.  It means we’re being somebody’s friend, somebody’s rock, somebody’s protection in this unfriendly world.  

            I think when we put ourselves into that kind of work—and this is stuff we can incorporate into the rhythms of our day-to-day lives — when we put ourselves into that kind of work, we will know, and the world will know, that God’s kingdom is already among us.

                                                                                                                                                                                    INVITATION

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